Fairy tales would have us believe that stepmothers are always wicked and stepfathers are fairly brutal. It is very easy to lose sight of how difficult it is for step parents to negotiate a relationship with their step children and many articles are written on step families from a children’s perspective, somehow forgetting that it is also quite a daunting prospect for people to take on other people’s children and the new relationship can bring with it a myriad of difficulties.
Firstly, to become a step parent there will more often than not have been a divorce between your partner and their ex and if not then a separation. The children who are then part of the new step family bring with them their own feelings about their biological parents which can range from conflicts of loyalty, to open hostility to the newcomer. Those children are coping with the break up of their family and their parent taking on a new partner. Often being a step parent can mean that as well as trying to find a way to ‘fit’ with the children, there has to be the ability to tolerate a partners relationship with his or her ex around the children and an ability to cope with the ex-partner’s envy or hostile feelings to the new partner – the step parent.
That is an enormous amount to take on. Often the new relationship is punctuated by drama over what the ex is saying or doing with the children and being effectively held to ransom by changed arrangements over contact or holidays. A new relationship which involves taking on someone else’s children is not just a relationship between two people. It is a relationship which starts with two people but has to factor in other adults with their own agenda and children who may well not be receptive to a deep wish to have a good relationship. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how sensitive to others people’s needs a step parent is, whether it’s the ex, doing their level best to make life difficult or the children not wanting to be disloyal to their mother or father, there is a feeling that the price paid for the relationship is high. With the focus mainly on how children can cope with their reconstituted family, I think it is easy to forget how step parents feel in all of this.
Step parents need to find a role within the new family. Not wanting to usurp the role of the biological parent and take the place in disciplining or decision making, they are left to find a place for themselves outside the couple relationship. It can be very distressing to be ignored by children or on the receiving end of cold indifference, knowing that in your heart you want to be supportive and sensitive but somehow that is being dismissed by all except the new partner.
Being a step parent can be, or can become over time, a rewarding and enriching experience but the huge effort it takes to get there can sometimes be overlooked.